RICKIE DESCANO, 77, and her sister Rosina Squilla, 75, walked into John W. Hallahan Catholic Girls' High School on Friday, expecting to take a nostalgic tour of a school from which they dropped out in the 1950s to help support their family when their father was dying of cancer. Instead, they were regaled with the graduation ceremony they never had.
And they were shocked.
"I'm still amazed how that all came about," Squilla said. "I never, never, never expected that in all my life."
The pair had established the Nina Pennachietti Foundation in their mother's name - to help current Hallahan students with tuition so they can get the education she and her sister never finished, Squilla explained - and arrived at the school, near 19th and Callowhill streets, to present a $5,000 check and take a tour.
But school officials, students and relatives were ready with a baccalaureate Mass and graduation ceremony for the two women.
"It was gratifying, it was beautiful, it was amazing," Squilla said. "My heart just couldn't tell you how happy."
Squilla was 16 and in her junior year at Hallahan in 1955 when her father was gravely ill with throat cancer and her mother needed extra help to support their family of seven children. Descano, who is 18 months older, had already dropped out and begun working at a Center City bank to earn money for the family.
"They asked if I could do the same thing to help out," recalled Squilla, now a mother of three and a grandmother to 10. "All our help went to support the family. We did it happily. We made sure all the kids were happy and they always had enough."
On July 23, 1956 - about a year after she left Hallahan - her father died, Squilla said. He was 63 and her mother just 38. She and Descano's younger siblings were 5, 7, 9, 13 and 15 at the time, she recalled.
"I was heartbroken [about] his illness. I was praying for miracles, that he would make it through," she said. "It didn't happen that way, but I still had to say yes [to helping]."
Descano said a nephew helped to secretly plan the graduation ceremony, telling her children and her sister's children about it months ago, but keeping everything under wraps. Both had received their diplomas back in April - also a surprise - but never expected a graduation ceremony more than a half-century after they should have finished high school.
The older sister said she was impressed with the current students who took part.
"What a school. That's the school we saw that day, with these wonderful young women," Descano said. "We told them to appreciate their mothers' sacrifice."
Both women said they were thrilled to have finally closed the chapter on their unfinished high school years - but they recognized, too, that many other women their age never had a chance at an education.
"Back in those days, education wasn't a big deal, especially for women . . . because who could afford to expand on their education if they didn't have money?" Squilla said. "I know there are other people who have done the same thing . . . other people have made sacrifices just as grave. All good things can happen to them as well."
Still, she knows her father would have been proud to see his daughters, who sacrificed for him and for their family, graduate from Hallahan.
"I think he would've been very proud," she said. "I know my mom and dad were standing there saying, 'The sacrifices you made for us, God paid you back in full.' "